LAFC, the shiny new-ish toy that came into the league half a decade ago, made it to MLS Cup for the first time in their brief history, and are hosting this coming Saturday (4 pm ET | FOX, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada).
The Black & Gold will face a Philadelphia Union team that’s got three Cup final appearances – all in the US Open Cup from 2014-18 – but have yet to bring home hardware beyond the 2020 Supporters’ Shield.
These have been two of the handful of the best teams in the league over the past five years, and were unquestionably the two best in MLS this year, so nothing about this matchup feels particularly surprising. LAFC (West No. 1 seed) spent a good chunk of late summer on the struggle bus but, as talented veteran teams often do, they kicked into high gear with a few weeks left, secured their second Shield in four years, then survived an El Trafico in the West Semis before doing murder upon poor Austin FC in the West Final. They are going for the Shield/Cup double, which hasn’t been done since Toronto FC managed it in 2017.
Philly (East No. 1 seed), meanwhile, would actually be the Shield winners in most leagues – they have a far superior goal differential, which is the typical first tiebreaker (in MLS it’s wins). What they did over the second half of the season, and then what they did over the second half of their Eastern Conference Final win over last year’s MLS Cup winners, NYCFC, makes it feel like they, too, are playing for history. We all remember the 2014 LA Galaxy and 2018 Atlanta United teams, right? Came up just short in the Shield chase, but then won the Cup? That’s the historical company Philly would be keeping if they win this thing.
What I’m saying is both teams are here on merit. We are being treated to an MLS Cup that will really, honestly and truly determine who the best team in the league was this year.
Let’s take a look at how it’s gonna play out.
What LAFC will do
The glory of this year’s LAFC team is they can and will do a little bit of anything, and are masters of taking whatever the defense gives them. They have some things they do better than others – god, would they love to come out and just be a counterattacking team here! – but they’re not truly married to any particular ideology.
We saw that manifest itself in the first half of the 3-0 win over Austin. El Verde came out in a mid-block 4-4-2 blob that was selling out to keep Giorgio Chiellini from picking them apart, choosing instead to leave right center back Jesus Murillo time and space on the ball.
And so time after time after time LAFC sent runners through the line as Murillo dropped long balls into that space between the backline and goalkeeper Brad Stuver. Mostly it was Denis Bouanga cutting in from his spot on the left wing, though both Carlos Vela and Jose Cifuentes got into the action as well.
But, you know, they don’t just play it over the top, either:
And oh, by the way, they remain one of the league’s best at turning high pressure into chances, and subsequently turning those chances into goals.
Ok, so at this point, this is more a recital of LAFC’s tactical strengths rather than a blueprint on how they will/should go against Philly, and that’s kind of the point: LAFC are so good they can take what the game gives them and beat you over the head with it against most teams. The wrinkles and adjustments they need are already built into their structure.
The only meeting of the season between the two teams, a 2-2 draw in LA back on May 7, is illustrative of that. Just look at the team’s passing shape, as per the tracking data:
I’d expect it to be similar on Saturday, though likely with Ryan Hollingshead pushed higher than Franco Escobar did six months ago (barring any early game state-related modifications, anyway).
LAFC generated 22 shots in that game, though the only truly good ones came via the counter or on set pieces. As always – as always for everyone – they tried to blow apart Philly’s diamond by creating wide overloads.
There’s no real reason to think their game plan will be different this time around.
What Philly will do
We all know how Philly play: fast and vertical. They are always completely ready to play a long ball over the top into space for one of their multiple runners, and yes, there will always be multiple runners.
At the same time, while they don’t switch the field a ton, they’re very skillful on the backline and at d-mid, so they’re completely adept at creating pressure traps – sucking the opposing defense in on one side of the pitch and then quickly shuttling possession to the other side of the pitch for an on-rushing fullback, who then gets to pick his service into, yes, multiple runners.
Let’s see if that kind of thing could possibly work against LAFC!
Armchair Analyst: Gazdag goal at LAFC
I guess it would, wouldn’t it?
The bedrock of Philly’s ethos is they want you to overextend yourself, whether it’s in pursuit of a goal by using the ball, or whether it’s in pursuit of the ball itself and trying to win it back. If/when you do that, they are one of the most lethal teams in league history.
That lethality is born of all that skill all over the backline and deep in midfield, and is punctuated by three insanely hard-working two-way attackers in Daniel Gazdag (nominally a No. 10, but really much more of a goalscorer than a creator), Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre (interchangeable center forwards, though Uhre’s more likely to stretch the field while Carranza’s more likely to drop in and play-make).
It’s with the shuttlers – the wide midfielders in the diamond – that we could possibly see some injury-forced variation in Philly’s scheme. We know no matter what, Leon Flach is going to start and is going to spend as much of his day as possible trying to make Cifu’s life hell. But on the other side of the field… look, I just can’t imagine Ale Bedoya’s going to be good to go. He’s rushed it back twice now in the past three weeks, and both times he was a shell of himself before hobbling off the field.
If that’s the case, then Jack McGlynn is clearly going to be the starter – and McGlynn is a very different type of No. 8 than Bedoya. Bedoya has three lungs and a great, big brain, which means he’s brilliant at finding space and especially at creating space for others with his selfless off-ball running (this happens a ton on the overlap, and Philly’s right backs have been measurably less effective when Bedoya’s been sidelined).
McGlynn doesn’t have the range or brain (yet) Bedoya has, but his ability on the ball…
You thought I was going to drop the clip of his secondary assist on the winner against NYCFC in there, didn’t you? I could’ve! It was a great ball, and if the spacing in LAFC’s midfield devolves in the second half, McGlynn will pick them apart.
But I thought it was more important to show that clip, which gives a better illustration of the pace Philly play at (it’s a bit slower) and how they attack (it’s a bit more intricate, with more small-ball combos) when McGlynn’s in the lineup.
By the way: Philly are a pressing team, and they’re definitely a counter-pressing team, but they’re not really a high-pressing team. They can and will do it selectively, of course, but their typical line of confrontation is closer to midfield than it is to the opposing goalkeeper’s box.
X-factor No. 1
Health! Both Bedoya and Chiellini made it only to halftime of their respective Conference Finals. We already covered the likely Bedoya adjustments for Philly, but if Chiellini can’t go for LAFC, is Eddie Segura going to be fit enough to walk back into the lineup? I kind of doubt it.
So that means LAFC could be playing for their first MLS Cup, against one of the highest-scoring teams in league history, with a fourth-string center back (Sebastien Ibeagha) on the field. Gulp.
By the way, it’s pretty clear Uhre’s nowhere near 100% fit himself. Philly have a great backup in Cory Burke, but Burke is one of those guys who really is at his best coming off the bench.
X-factor No. 2
Both of these teams are elite on restarts. LAFC’s 17 goals scored across the regular season and playoffs is third behind Nashville and Austin, while Philly led the league in xG off of dead-ball situations this year (and scored 13).
Philly conceded just five off of restarts all year, while LAFC were a little looser with eight goals allowed in those situations.
X-factor No. 3
Armchair Analyst: Blake save vs. NYCFC
In Maxime Crepeau, LAFC have a good goalkeeper (though he’s been up and down this year). In Blake, Philly have one of the very best goalkeepers in MLS history.
Weirdly, by the way, his worst game of the season – easily – was in that 2-2 draw between these teams at the Banc.
Home-field advantage in MLS Cups has been SUBSTANTIAL – you have to go all the way back to 2015 Portland to find the last time the visitors straight up won outright (Seattle in 2016 and NYCFC in 2021 walked away with their trophies after winning PK shootouts).
That’s a tough precedent to pick against, but I went with the Union in my bracket at the start of the playoffs and I have to be a man of my word here. 1-0 #DOOP with Blake winning MLS Cup MVP presented by Audi honors.